SS Richmond Castle

SURVIVORS

Angus Murray, South Shawbost and John Maclver, North Tolsta, were shipmates on the Union Castle liner, Richmond Castle, homeward bound from the River Plate, when at mid-day on 4th August 1942 some 700 miles west of Newfoundland she was the victim of a U-boat. There was just time to launch the lifeboats before she sank. The torpedoes had blasted her side open.

Angus recalls that moment:
"ABOUT NOON there was a terrific explosion. Everything in my cabin fell in pieces around me. I was terrified till I remembered how the Lord had helped me previously. I recovered my composure and put on some warm clothing. I took my Bible, my two watches and my lifebelt from my locker and headed for the open deck. The sea was entering No. 4 hatch as I made my way with difficulty to the boatdeck.

I assisted in lowering the last boat as the ship heeled over, sinking. I shinned down a fall and swam to the lifeboat. It was waterlogged. We had to swim to a raft as the lifeboat capsized. It took quite an effort to right the boat and to bale her out. A lot of its equipment including the sails, food and water was lost. There were eighteen of us, including the Chief Officer, aboard. John Maclver was in another boat with the Second Officer. The Captain was in the third lifeboat.

The U-boat which had torpedoed our ship surfaced. They showed us great kindness, giving us food and field dressings for each boat and they told us the nearest landfall was Newfoundland. They waved good-bye to us as they submerged. It was decided that the boats should make for Newfoundland. During the night a westerly gale blew up and we lost sight of each other. It was bitterly cold. We fixed up a sea anchor with a couple of buckets, an oar and a rope which we recovered from among the debris floating on the sea where our ship had sunk.

Sometime during the following forenoon we sighted the other lifeboats. The Second Officer's boat approached us and told us the Captain was still heading for Newfoundland, but he himself was going to try for Ireland. They took us in tow as we had no sail. It was slow going, so after more consultation with the Chief Officer, I started to make a sail with blankets. I sewed two together with rope yarn. We hoisted this onto a ten-foot high flagstaff which we had recovered. It was crude but useful, as was a lugsail fashioned out of a 6 x 3 foot piece of wood with an oar for a mast. In fact it worked so well that we were going as fast as the other boat so we decided to sail independently. Before parting, the Second Officer shared food with us as we were running short and anticipating a three-week sail to land. We soon lost sight of each other.

At first, water was rationed to an ounce three times a day. Fortunately we recovered two tanks from floating rafts and this enabled the rations to be doubled. We also managed to collect some rain water to supplement our supply. During the night when I was at the tiller, I used to catch a few drops of water from occasional showers by holding a square tin-lid against my cheek. Even a few drops revived me.

As the days passed we seemed to be making good progress. However, we could only guess at our speed. Daytime was not too bad, but it got very cold at night. We rubbed each other's hands and feet with oil to restore circulation and generate a bit of warmth. The daily water ration was the main thing we looked forward to, though we also took a little food.

On Sunday, the sixth day in the boat, the sea and wind got up during the night when I was on the tiller. I remembered lessons taught me in my younger days when sailing open boats at home. One of these was that it was dangerous to run before the wind with too much sail. So we set a sea anchor. We began to ship water. I advised running on with only one blanket up. This worked and by next morning the weather had moderated a bit and we resumed progress at a fair speed.
Now and again I tried to read my Bible but the pages had got soaked and were unreadable. I prayed silently for myself and for my shipmates.The following Thursday we sighted a small speck on the horizon. At first we thought it was a U-boat conning tower. As it approached we saw it was an RN corvette. What a welcome sight! She was soon alongside with her crew helping us aboard. Our wet rags were discarded and we were wrapped in warm blankets and provided with all our other immediate needs. Our rescuers had been searching for survivors from another vessel when they spotted our boat. That is the way of the sea. A few days later we were landed in Londonderry."

Angus Murray and his fellow survivors being picked up by the Navy Corvette

A young radio officer in the lifeboat, Peter Franklin of Yorkshire, said of Angus: "He was the only fellow in the boat who knew anything about small boats, and our Chief Officer had the sense to let him get on with it. His soft gentle manner gave us confidence and hope".

JOHN MACIVER'S ordeal was still going on in the second lifeboat where he was playing a similar part to Angus's in sailing the boat. Here again his earlier experience in the Lewis open boats was providing a key role. It was some days later that rescue came to them. This was too late for several of them. Out of the original eighteen in this lifeboat only seven very exhausted men were left, suffering from the intense cold and exposure. By a strange coincidence the rescuing ship was one on which John had previously served and he received a particularly warm reception from former shipmates as he was helped aboard the SS Suffolk.
It was no more than their due when Angus and John were each awarded the British Empire Medal for "skill and resource in bringing survivors to safety in circumstances that would have daunted the bravest".

Sad to relate, John Maclver died soon after receiving his award. He never really recovered from his punishing experience. In recent years survivors from Angus's boat have had joyful and thankful reunions.

One Man's War

These notes are based on an interview between Leodie Murray, Shawbost Post
Office, and Mike Murray (nephew visiting from Australia), dated 9 August 1999.

For fifty years I’ve badgered Leodie – "Tell us about your experiences in the war!”
“Och, no,” he’d say with a little smile. “There’s nothing to tell.” He’d change the subject and move on.

I knew he’d been a POW in Germany, but he’d never say any more than that about his past. And then, finally, with little warning, one day in 1999 he opens up.

We are talking over a dram about family history. I’ve taken a keen interest in the subject and have been grilling Leodie about his memories every time we visit Lewis. Leodie casually mentions that his Aunt Catherine was living in the house when he went off to the war.

The war. What was it like, I ask. I wait, tense, waiting to see if he’ll say anything. He settles back, and starts talking. I start scribbling . . .

“I was called up, joined the Royal Artillery. There was a TA battery in Stornoway. We spent the first six weeks after call-up in Stornoway and then we were taken to Aldershot. We had the same sergeants there as in Stornoway.

“Then we were sent to France as part of the BEF. We had no training. Soon after, the French capitulated, and we were surrounded and captured at Dunkirk. It was the first we’d seen of the German soldier . . . you had to admire them as soldiers.”

How did it feel when you were captured?

“The thought of being captured was a great shock . . . you stopped thinking for a while . . . your mind went blank. The thought of the future, if we had one, was very bleak. And so it was for a few years.”

What happened then?

“We walked. I remember every step of it! We were walking all day. Walked to Belgium, then to the borders of Poland, on to coal barges on the Rhine, all the Stornoway people. It was very miserable. We used a boot as a pillow every night. We arrived somewhere in Germany – Aachen, I think – and were put on cattle trucks for three more days. Ended up somewhere east of Germany. After two months on the march, we reached Stalag 8B.”

We look at a photo of Leodie looking so young in his uniform, with ‘Stalag 8B’ written in pencil on the back of the photo . . .

“I didn’t stay long at Stalag 8B. I was sent on one of the working parties. They went to coal mines, factories. Our first job was building a hospital . . . digging the drains.

“We were formed up in groups of six. Every second day the person at the front of the group was handed a loaf of bread, to be handed down the line.

“The first day I was handed a pick and shovel, I didn’t think I’d have the strength to carry them. After a year and a half the hospital was finished, and we were sent to a paper mill. That was heavy work. We worked beside groups of Jews. We were treated like gentlemen compared to them.

“We had some disputes among ourselves. One day some loudmouth said, ‘We won’t do what we’re told. It’s a rebellion!’ About five of us said that if we gave our word we’d stick to it. They took us away and put us in the slammer. The agitator was the first to give in!

“So we wanted to get away from that crowd. We were sent to a stone quarry, and were there till near the end of the war. Then, one day the Germans gathered us up and marched us away. The Russians were getting near and they didn’t want them to get us. So we walked back through Europe.

“At one point during that march we were divided into two halves. I happened to be in the wrong half. The first half carried on, and were released just after the 6th June, and flown home. The other half were put into another camp. It was horrible, coming towards the end of the war. We were there for three weeks. It was the Russians that released us . . . we were free. If we wanted anything, they just took it from the Germans and gave it to us. It was a very long three weeks, waiting to go home. And the people in Shawbost didn’t know anything about us.

“I arrived in Stornoway on the night they had a celebration for the release of the POWs. I thought how much of a failure I was.

“They ended up sending me to a rehabilitation centre for a week, to learn how to handle any sort of job. It was a waste of time. I was eventually demobbed, and started weaving again, carrying on as before.”

Did you feel empty?

“Yes. Those who had dodged the war, they were well off. They didn’t want the war to end. People claimed exemption. Everything was rationed. I think now I should have moved away. But I didn’t.”

He sighs.
“Och well, now I’ve told you.”

____________________________________________________

Unsung Hero

(Narrated by Donald MacDonald (Doilidh Dhonnchaidh), formerly of 3 New Shawbost and now resident in Back)

I knew Donald Smith. Every single one of the group of teenagers who spent carefree pre-war summer days at the seashore in the village of Shawbost had good reason to be impressed by Donald Smith’s expertise and prowess as a swimmer. Shawbost Bay was the location where he practised and developed his self-taught skill, a skill that was destined to feature so prominently and dramatically in his all-too-short life.

Shawbost Shore

The scene was one of magnificence. Here was the work of creation in all its majestic splendour. Ancient rocks, darkened by age and spanning aeons of time stood sentinel at the entrance to the bay, giving the impression of solidity, permanence and changelessness. They had withstood triumphantly the merciless pounding of ocean waves and the erosion of countless millennia. Their battle against the test of time had been won.

“ Na tonnan mòra ruith gu luath
Gu beul a’ chladaich, ’s gàir nan gruaidh
Tonn air thonn, is stuadh air stuadh
A’ bualadh air an tràigh.”

As far as the eye could see to the distant horizon there was the vast expanse of Atlantic waters, calmed as the flow entered the shelter of the bay, and there were days of benign weather when the surface was placid and lagoon-like. Wave after incessant wave curved its way to shore and to journey’s end, its life coming to a close in a fringe of frothy whiteness. Pristine sands of unpolluted purity laced the water’s edge and enhanced the spectacle that brought such sheer delight to the eye of the beholder.

Seabirds, in flock formation and in a fury of flight, skimmed with ease the surface of the waves, and their collective call sounded like cries of boundless ecstasy as they exploited their natural habitat.

All of this abundance was encompassed by a vast canopy of sky which, with the aid of selective memory, was forever cloudless and with a clarity of clearest blue. This was the scene all those years ago in the halcyon days of youth.

Such is the exuberance of teenage years that those who frolicked in the water gave no thought to anything other than viewing, metaphorically, the wide horizons that beckoned invitingly. With such euphoria future years were not to be encumbered by trial and tribulation and the dense fogs of life were not to descend and fail to lift or disperse, no matter how protracted the passage of time.

It is little wonder that the scenic picture of Shawbost Bay has not faded and that it is indelibly planted in a corner of precious memory, there to be recalled at a moment’s notice to give nostalgic pleasure and, often, consolation.

Another Sea

“Lùigeadh gach neach air a charaid
A h-uile rud math agus còir . . .”

Donald Smith of 25 North Shawbost, A Royal Naval Reservist, was, like many others, called up for service at the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. He was assigned to H.M.T. “River Clyde”, a trawler equipped for mine-sweeping duties in the hostile waters of the North Sea. It is not difficult to imagine that this was a most hazardous operation.

In August 1940, less than a year after the onset of hostilities, the “River Clyde” hit a mine with the result that the ship’s crew found themselves in the water. Donald Smith noticed that a crew member, the ship’s steward, was encountering great difficulty and that he was not wearing a lifebelt. Though wounded, mortally as it turned out, Donald swam valiantly to his struggling colleague’s aid and ungrudgingly gave him his own lifebelt. In due course there was rescue. Donald Smith was rushed to hospital. The ship’s steward survived. Donald Smith died of wounds the following day on 7 August 1940 at the age of twenty-five.

It would be natural, and indeed only reasonable, to take for granted and without hesitation that this act of gallantry, of magnanimity, of selflessness, would automatically qualify for an award. Donald received nothing, not even a mention in despatches – a gross injustice which must rank as one of the highest forms of travesty.

At the time a short report appeared in the “Stornoway Gazette”. It shows a photograph of Donald Smith in naval uniform. There is also a photograph of another Donald Smith, a shipmate, of 23 North Bragar. Both perished and both were young.

In the Smith family there is a tradition of gallantry in war. Donald’s father, Malcolm, was mentioned in despatches for gallantry during World War I, and an uncle of his, after whom he was named, was killed in action at the Battle of Magersfontein during the Boer War. He was a member of a British force that set out to relieve the siege of Kimberley in 1899, an exercise that resulted in more than one thousand casualties.

An uaigh an dùthchannan cèin
Ro fhada bhon t-sluagh
’S bhon tìr sin air an robh ’n dèidh . . .”

Donald Smith is interred in England. His nephew, Calum, thinking that the grave was at Harwich, visited the seaport but to no avail. However when he reported this to his brother Donald (25 North Shawbost), it happened by good fortune that next-door neighbour, Malcolm Maclean, was visiting the house at the time and remembered hearing that the grave was at Shotley – information that led to the two nephews, their wives and youngsters travelling to Suffolk. The naval cemetery at Shotley has a beautiful setting and in the vicinity is a church which all the relatives entered. Photographs were taken. The headstone, carrying the naval insignia of the anchor, reads:

D. SMITH
SEAMAN RNR
HM TRAWLER RIVER CLYDE
7 AUGUST 1940
FONDLY REMEMBERED BY HIS
FATHER, BROTHERS AND SISTERS
AT SHAWBOST LEWIS

This is the story of Donald Smith, man of heroism, man of selfless magnanimity and, endearingly, man of modesty. Puzzling in the extreme is the fact that no recognition was made for such a noble and chivalrous act as Donald’s, but doubtless a higher Authority with an infallible sense of justice will make amends with an accolade infinitely superior to any that humankind can bestow.

The proud story of Donald Smith, with its Biblical connotation, deserves to be inscribed in letters of gold on the marble slab of memory.

____________________________________________________

We are grateful to Mr J. A. Macleod (of Shawbost and Stornoway) Shonnie Spleen, for sharing with us this bit of family history.

Private John Gillies, born at 19 North Shawbost, was desperate to go and fight in the war. But as he was too young, he asked his sister to sign the papers falsifying his age, which she did. This was fairly common practice at the time. John Gillies never returned and his sister always blamed herself. John Gillies was Shonnie’s uncle. He was 19 years old when he died

 

Commonwealth War Graves Commission
2 Marlow Road Maidenhead Berkshire
Telex 847526 Cornqra 0
Telephone Maidenhead (0628) 34221 (ext
Fax (0628) 771208

Dear Mr MacLeod

Thank you for your letter of 11th January 1991. I can confirm the following details from our records.

Private John Gillies, 3/7281, serving with 2nd Battalion Seaforth Highlanders, died on 3rd May 1915, age 19. Sadly he has no known grave; therefore he is commemorated by name on Panel 38 of the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, Belgium. He was the son of Kenneth Gillies of Stornoway, Isle of Lewis.

Letter on the Right is from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to Mr J A Macleod, 11 Brue Barvas, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis

Ypres (now Ieper) is a town in the Province of West Flanders. The Memorial is situated at the eastern side of the town on the road to Menin and Courtrai, and bears the names of approximately 55,000 who were lost without trace during the defence of Ypres Salient in the first war.

I hope you find the above information helpful, and rest assured that your uncle’s name will not be forgotten.

Yours sincerely
Mr L Ball

Dear Mr MacLeod

Thank you for your letter of 4 March 1991 regarding your uncle, John Angus Gillies.

The Memorial on which your uncle is commemorated does not stand in a cemetery but I am sending you a general view photograph of the Memorial which you are welcome to keep with the commission’s compliments. I hope you find this interesting.

Yours sincerely
Mr L Ball

The Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial Belgium